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Brown's Budget Would Boost Schools, Universities, Immigrants

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

California Gov. Jerry Brown gestures to a chart showing the increase in education spending as he discusses his revised state budget plan during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday May 14, 2015.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The surprise news in Gov. Jerry Brown’s $115 billion California budget proposal isn’t the money for schools, or the state’s new rainy day fund. It’s the deal he struck with the University of California – a deal that may not be as solid as it first seemed.

We’ve all been through the Jerry Brown budget drill by now: The surge in state revenues goes to schools, reserves and long-term debt – leaving little new money for other priorities:

“The idea that when you get a little money – or a lot of money – for a few years, that now you’ve reached utopia is so demonstrably false, as evidenced by the last 12 years,“ Brown told reporters at the Capitol Thursday as he released his updated budget proposal known as the May Revise. “So we have to learn from history and not keep repeating the mistakes.”

But this time, it's Brown who's proposing some new spending. There’s a state earned income tax credit for two million of the poorest Californians. There’s health care for the 1.5 million undocumented immigrants subject to President Obama’s executive order, if that order is held up in court. And…there’s the deal he struck with the University of California after months of private negotiations.

Under the deal – which, like the rest of the governor's proposal, would require the Legislature's approval – the state would pay down more than $400 million of unfunded pension debt over the next three years. In exchange, the UC will improve the transfer process from community colleges and freeze tuition for the next two academic years.

“Two years stable – I mean, that’s great,” says UC Merced senior and UC Student Association President Jefferson Kuoch-Seng. “But in the future, increases in relation to inflation – I think that definitely hurts the state more than it would help it.”

And the deal might not be fully cooked: The UC says Brown has promised not to line-item veto any additional money that lawmakers place in the state budget. But Brown suggested he might, if there’s no agreement with lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the governor is also offering an additional $38 million to the California State University system – without strings attached. Cal Poly Pomona senior and California State Student Association Board Chair Devon Graves calls it a starting point: “We are much appreciative of the additional funding, but it still falls short of the $97 million that we’ve requested.”

Some Democratic lawmakers agree – particularly since unlike the UC, the CSU didn’t threaten tuition increases. So that makes the question of whether Brown would veto any extra higher education funding a critical one. The governor’s office didn’t respond when asked about the apparent contradiction; the UC says it stands by its statement.

If students and immigrants were among the winners in Brown’s budget proposal, social services programs once again were the losers.

But the governor suggested taking the long view: “We have to take what we have, spend it prudently, and don’t think – oh, this year, that’s it. No, there’s the year after, and the year after that. And we have pretty good evidence for how we have to operate.”

“Well, obviously, I was disappointed,” says Democratic state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson. But with budget talks just beginning, she and her colleagues will push the governor to go further on their priorities.

“Childcare is something that is critically important to the state,“ Jackson says. “It’s critically important to its future because our children deserve the best education that they can get.”

The governor drew praise from legislative Republicans.

“For once, we are saying right on, actually, it’s a pretty good May Revise,” says Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez.

“The governor should be commended for putting together what seems to be a fiscally responsible bill,” says Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff.

Gov. Brown has gotten most of what he wants in recent years’ budget agreements – but he’s still given Democratic lawmakers enough for them to claim some modest victories. It remains to be seen if this year’s negotiations will follow the same pattern. The Legislature’s constitutional budget deadline is June 15th.